There's sort of a weird dynamic in the world of sports commentary where red-blooded sports-watching men have to tiptoe around certain subjects as delicately as Victorian gentlemen. You can't bring up race, you can't call someone a jerk and unless you're a pundit or columnist, you can't straight out say someone sucks, even if his suckage is so blatant that pre-verbal children are pointing it out.
Instead, you end up using these euphemistic code words that are in some ways almost worse than just dissing people straight out. Like:
Real meaning: A mediocre player who will never be asked for his autograph.
Sometimes a player will get subbed into a game and the commentator's first thought is, Wow, what a complete non-entity. But because it's unprofessional for some reason to call a spade a spade, they'll instead point out that he's a "role-player" or perhaps a "hard worker," which is as condescending as someone telling you that your handwriting is very good when you ask them what they thought of your story.
Via Keith Allison
Nazr Mohammed, literal live action role-player.
In basketball, you might call someone a "banger" if they are willing to get under the basket and take a lot of tough physical contact from other players. Which seems like a compliment until you notice that nobody who can actually, you know, shoot, ever gets called a "banger" no matter how much pushing they do in the paint.
Via Keith Allison
Dirk Nowitzki -- proof that Neanderthals mated with modern humans? Perhaps. Banger? No.
Basically they're evading the implied question of, "Is he a good player?" by answering, "Well, uh, he works really hard and is OK with getting hit a lot."
Occasionally, you get someone trying to throw role-players a bone by saying they "can be stars in their own way" or are an Important Part of the Team, really! Which I would think is worse than being ignored.
When an announcer says: "With a seventh-round pick, they'll probably be picking up a role-player."
He means: "Apparently all that's left in the seventh round this year is a bunch of useless players nobody cares about."
When an announcer says: "A journeyman center acquired last year in the [star's name] trade."
He means: "I guess this guy must have been attached to that package in that big trade last year along with the players I've actually heard of."
Real meaning: Small, probably white.
Sports are full of unusually large specimens of humanity, so it's only natural to do a double-take when you see a player much shorter than his teammates, and only natural to want to point it out. The problem is that you usually want to point it out after he's done something impressive, effectively saying, "Even though Wes Welker is so tiny you can fit him in a teacup, he was somehow able to jump up and catch the ball. Oh, good for him!"
Via Official Star Wars Blog
Sometimes news outlets will mistakenly run a photo of Warwick Davis alongside a Wes Welker story.
So you have to go about it in a roundabout way. You use words like "scrappy"or "feisty" or say he's "a real sparkplug" -- words that are ostensibly about someone's energy and enthusiasm, but would clearly never be used for a large or average-sized person. So you can pretend you're talking about how he caught the ball because he's got so much energy and enthusiasm, and not saying he caught it despite the fact that he is an adorable munchkin.
But it's kind of depressing to compare someone like Wes Welker, who is actually an average American male at 5'9", to this:
Via GeekCast Radio
To be fair, size is pretty important in a lot of sports and affects a lot of what a player can do. But why do you need to mention that a hockey player is 5'8" (and "feisty") in order to point out that he's good at avoiding penalties? He doesn't do it by ducking under them.
And is being 5'7" really some kind of Lifetime Channel handicap you have to overcome to succeed in baseball? Really?
Would you really want your MVP celebration to be commemorated with phrases like, "the little shortstop stood tall?" Did you just win the championship of Major League Baseball or the Little League World Series?
Real meaning: Asshole
I've gone over this before regarding Chargers QB Philip Rivers. When the game is going terribly for him, he steps up by yelling at his teammates a lot. Of course, when he's winning, it's a totally different story. He instead yells at the other team a lot. Or their fans.
Via The Baltimore Sun
And don't get me wrong, some of them totally deserve it.
And as a commentator, you can't avoid saying something about it when he's doing it right in front of the viewers. So you go, "What a ... competitor! Yeah. Let's go with that. Rivers has got a real ... competitive spirit." Or maybe he's just really "passionate."
The fans, the bloggers and the columnists can feel free to use words like "jerk," "punk," "dick" and "asshole," but commentators have to pretend they're angels with no negative thoughts about anyone.
So they have to play it like the only reason he's yelling at his own teammates is because he really, really cares about winning the game. The problem is that this implies that the other players who aren't yelling at their own teammates don't care as much about winning the game. That they're driven by a sort of laissez-faire attitude where it's OK to win or lose, as opposed to grownup self-control in the face of massive frustration.
Like Tim Duncan, four-time NBA champion, who clearly doesn't care very strongly about winning.
Of course it's not just Philip Rivers, whom I tend to pick on because I don't like his smug, frat boy face. Athletes in any sport are always making dick moves, and no matter how awful they are, there will always be some people somewhere excusing them as merely being "really competitive."
Andrew Bynum being competitive.
Real meaning: Hitting people hard and probably dirty.
Even if you don't know sports, you can already tell "physical" is a euphemism because how the hell is a player or team going to not be physical? While a phase shift to the noncorporeal realm would be awesome for passing through defenders, I don't think I've seen a single professional player in any sport capable of pulling that move.
But it sounds distasteful and barbaric to say, "The Lakers really need to start hitting the other team harder when the referee isn't looking," so they go with, "The Lakers really need to bring a more physical game here in the third quarter to keep pressure on the Celtics."
Your average hockey headline.
There's a lot of nuance to the term, though, so while one fan might really be asking his team to push opponents around and stand their ground in a legal and honorable way, another fan might be asking for nut shots.